“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Author Unknown
My life began in the upstairs bedroom of a small clapboard-covered farmhouse in Wisconsin. There were already six children in the family, and four years later twins were born making the final count nine. Whether my birth was difficult or routine no one has told me, but my oldest sister once revealed that I was born with a caul (membrane) over my face. I had to look up that word and found that it's also called a holy or lucky hood. One of the superstitions attached to it is that it's a sign of good luck. Another states that if preserved, it's a protection against drowning. I have no dried up membrane tucked away in a bureau drawer, but so far I haven't drowned either. So maybe I'm just lucky. If I am to give any validity to the superstitions associated with being born with a caul, I choose luck for the fortunate combination of circumstances that brought me to the desert.
My mother was not so lucky, in that her too-short life ended at age thirty-four. Her death certificate listed cancer of the mastoids (those little bones behind the ears), but there is a good chance she really died of a massive and chronic infection. Ear aches were an affliction she endured on a regular basis and antibiotics were not yet available, so infections often became killers. There is no way I’ll ever know for sure, but perhaps, due to my own bout with cancer which I talk about in an earlier book, Beachwalk, I think she died of an infection which, for reasons I don't understand, is more acceptable to me than cancer.
I don’t remember anything from those early years on the farm. I am told by my oldest sister that at one time, in my toddler days, my mother heard my small child's voice echoing from under the front porch where I sometimes used to play in the sand after crawling through a hole in the lattice work. “Nice kitty, nice kitty,” I repeated over and over. Since we didn’t have any house cats, my mother asked my older sister to squeeze under the stoop and see what I was up to. There I was, sitting in the dirt cuddling a baby skunk to my check with the rest of the litter curled up in my lap.
I suppose any three-year-old would find a nest of black and white striped “kitties” quite appealing, but I like to think of the incident as my first wildlife encounter, one that would imprint itself upon my young brain and brand it for all time with a love for nature’s wild creatures.
In reality, it was likely my brothers cultivated a good deal of my feeling for the outdoors after the family moved to another farm in northern Minnesota. Or perhaps they merely built upon what began with “kitties” under the porch. They introduced me to birds’ nests in the barn eaves, pink sweet-smelling wild roses sprawling along fence lines, snapping turtles sunning on floating logs and deer wandering into the barnyard at dusk for a lick at the salt block set out for our cows. These events were always presented as something special, out of the ordinary and worthy of time spent observing and appreciating.
There were times when my brothers were just plain boys, dancing around me, dangling a grass snake in my face while I screamed in terror, or laughing when an aggressive goose chased me with loud quacking, flapping wings and an open beak ready to pinch. Touching the electric fence with a tall stem of grass to feel the thump, thump of electricity coursing through our bodies was a game we used to see who was the bravest.
Another time, while playing around in the barn during milking hours, one of my brothers threw a pail of skim milk in my face, drenching my hair and clothes down to my shoes. I retreated to the house to change my sopping wet shorts and shirt and wash away the souring residue, but I couldn’t even tell on him because I knew I had been acting really bratty and deserved what I got.
Certainly the farm environment was an important element in learning respect for nature and finding awe in its everyday events. Whether a love of nature is a trait we are born with or one developed through access and education, I do not know. I suspect there are some who, if they were raised the way I was, might want to escape to the city and never look at another bird’s nest in their lifetime.
But most children, I think, are intrigued with the way plants grow and animals live. That’s why grade school teachers conduct simple experiments with sprouting beans on wet paper towels and growing foliage on sweet potatoes suspended in water with toothpicks stuck in their sides to hold them in a Mason jar. Classroom teachers also keep small animals in habitats so children can observe and understand them better. I can't help but think most of us would appreciate the wild outdoor world if only we had safe and reasonable access to it.
Not everyone can tramp through desert shrub or hike sandy canyon bottoms. But almost everyone can read and vicariously experience the adventures of those who do. My current home on a large unspoiled desert property, provides the perfect acreage for me to hike safely and experience the desert.
So when I write about the Verdin’s nest I watched the sparrows tear apart, two juvenile Sidewinder Rattlesnakes that took up residence in my house during remodeling, coyotes yipping their evening song, the bobcat slinking around the tractor shed at twilight, or the pottery shards and Indian metate unearthed after a rain storm, these are my offerings to those who would walk with me as well as all who cannot or would prefer not to experience such occurrences first hand.
Desertwalk, with its tales of adventures and detailed paintings, is my sweet potato in a jar growing leaves to demonstrate how nature works, my beans sprouting on wet paper towels. The property I walk daily is my terrarium where the miracles of life and death in the desert reveal their mysteries and educate me about a world I never imagined as a child growing up on a Minnesota farm.
I invite you to come with me on my desert walks to explore and observe beauty hidden in the sands of a dry and unfamiliar land. Together we will journey towards an understanding of the desert and, along the way, discover holiness inherent in all living things.
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